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 Pamela Colman Smith  (1878 - 1951)

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Lived/Active: New York / United Kingdom      Known for: symbolism, Tarot-card designer

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(portrait of a girl)
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Known as the designer of the Waite deck of Tarot Cards, Pamela Smith was also the first painter to have her work exhibited at the Stieglitz 219 Gallery in New York, known for photography exhibitions organized by owner Alfred Stieglitz. Smith's exhibitions, from 1907 to 1909, were very successful and her paintings sold well, which established her reputation on the East Coast.

Smith was born in London the daughter of an American merchant from Brooklyn, Charles Edward Smith and his American wife Corinne Colman.  Due to her father’s job with the West India Improvement Company, the family often moved, spending time in London, Kingston, Jamaica and Brooklyn, New York.

Smith's mother died when she was just 10 years old, and, often separated from her father due to his work, she was taken under the wing of the Lyceum Theater group in London led by Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Bram Stoker. Her early teens years spent traveling around the country with the theater group did much to influence her later art work.

By 1893, she had moved to Brooklyn to be with her father and studied at the Pratt Institute in New York from 1893 to 1897 where one of her teachers was Arthur Dow, whose modernist style influenced her work.  She also worked in New York as a free-lance book illustrator and writer including Widdicombe Fair and Annancy Stories.

Returning to England in 1899, she became a theatrical designer for a miniature theatre and an illustrator.  She illustrated Ellen Terry's book on Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, The Russian Ballet, published in 1913.

She met Arthur Waite in 1903, who hired her to develop his new Tarot deck of Cards, and these cards with her design are widely used today.  She also became involved with the Irish Renaissance movement that included Jack Butler Yeats and William Butler Yeats.  She continued her illustrations, did stage costumes, and also worked as a professional storyteller, drawing on her Jamaican experience.  Her increasing interest in mysticism led to a symbolist aesthetic in her painting, and she did visionary paintings inspired by music, which were included in her Stieglitz 291 Gallery exhibits.

In 1911, Smith converted to Catholicism, and religious imagery began appearing in her work.  With the beginning of World War I, she became involved in charitable causes including poster design.  After the war, she inherited money and moved to an artist's colony called The Lizard in Cornwall, and there she started a rest home for priests.  She died there in 1951.

Her works are in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Firestone Library at Princeton, the Philadelphia Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Sources include:
Stephanie Strass, American Women Artists, 1819-1947

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